I snagged this from the 3rd party email, yeah I’m an Army guy that happens to know a bit about Navy stuff, especially Carriers. I still think they need to go back to naming them for battles, and not politicians. I am glad to see the Enterprise coming back though.
The U.S. Navy’s Nimitz-class carriers are about to turn 50. But given the demand for the carrier air wing and delays to the Nimitz-class replacement—the Ford-class—the USS Nimitz (CVN 68) itself is unlikely to retire as soon as expected.
The Navy’s fiscal 2023 budget has already called to extend the first-in-class CVN 68, commissioned in 1975, for another deployment cycle instead of decommissioning it in 2025 as previously planned. Service officials say the upcoming budget request could include a final decision on extending the next in the class, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, beyond its 2027 projected end-of-service date—though extending just that ship likely will not be enough.
“Extending Nimitz, extending Ike, it’s going to happen for every Nimitz-class carrier. At least one extension,” Vice Adm. Kenneth Whitesell, then-commander of Naval Air Forces, said during an Aug. 25 discussion at the Tailhook Symposium shortly before retiring from the service.
- USS Nimitz extended, Eisenhower likely to follow
- The service seeks Ford-class advanced procurement change
- Repeated extensions could worsen strike fighter deficit
The future of the Nimitz class and oversight of ongoing issues facing production of the second Ford-class carrier, the USS John F. Kennedy, was a focal point of the discussion at the symposium. The Navy’s current plan for the Nimitz calls for $200 million for extension work as part of a 5.5-month maintenance schedule, according to a March 2023 report to Congress.
“Carriers are the linchpin of everything we do in naval aviation,” Director of Air Warfare Division N98 Rear Adm. Michael Donnelly said. “Our requirements are designed and aligned within our air wings to provide the capability out to the [combatant commands] for our ability to conduct the mission. Our ability to get the carriers out on time, whether it is new procurement or maintenance, is essential.”
The first-in-class USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN 78) is now deployed to the Mediterranean, about two years after it achieved initial operational capability. The Ford was extensively delayed and over budget, commissioning five years before the deployment and 15 years after its naming. Originally projected to cost $10.5 billion, the ship ended up costing $13.3 billion. Though it has advanced capabilities such as the new electromagnetic catapult system and improved weapons elevators, it is not yet able to bring on Lockheed Martin F-35Cs.
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The Kennedy (CVN 79) was christened in December 2019 and is scheduled to be delivered in 2025, one year later than its prior expected delivery. The next in the class, the USS Enterprise (CVN 80), has also been affected by labor and supply chain issues, with its delivery date at least a year late as well, now scheduled for 2028.
The Navy has also faced issues with midlife servicing of its ships. The USS George Washington (CVN 73) came out of its Refueling and Complex Overhaul process in May, about two years later than expected. “We are dependent on Newport News, Virginia,” Whitesell said of issues in the Huntington Ingalls Industries Newport News Shipbuilding yard.
To address the Refueling and Complex Overhaul issues, the Navy is executing a performance-based contract for the process on the USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74). For new builds, the service is also looking at extended advance procurement contracts to have more of a lead time in the supply chain, switching to a three-year period from the current two years, Donnelly said.
“We have to look at our procurement strategies so that we are designing the budgeting and programming [and] buying those on the right centers [to] keep the momentum going in the industrial process,” he says.
Demand for carriers will not likely abate soon, as evidenced by the Ford and Eisenhower operating together in the Mediterranean. The Navy has been stressed in fulfilling its post-Cold War plan for a permanent 1.0 carrier presence on station in three hubs—the Western Pacific, the wider Middle East and Europe. To keep up this presence, the service needs 15 carriers—a 3:1 ratio because of maintenance and deployment process requirements. This plan was outlined in the 1993 Bottom-Up Review under then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin, but the service has been unable to meet it since, says Steven Wills, a navalist with the Center for Maritime Strategy at the Navy League.
Navy policy has shifted to the Fleet Response Plan, which focuses on being able to surge aircraft carriers forward when needed, as with the six carriers deployed for Operation Desert Storm and the five for Operation Iraqi Freedom. The current fleet size of 11 stresses this model, and with reactor time left on the ships, multiple extensions are possible, Wills says. “We beat our ships up. We’ve only got X amount of carriers, and constantly keeping one-third deployed, that’s rough,” he says.
In some ways, keeping the carriers active may be easier than decommissioning them, says Bryan Clark, a senior fellow and director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Defense Concepts and Technology. Taking apart a massive, nuclear-powered aircraft carrier is a long, expensive and difficult job of which few companies are capable. Just three responded to a request for proposals to decommission the USS Enterprise. This process requires dismantling the nuclear reactor before shipping it to a nuclear waste storage facility, all while the ship takes up space in a dry dock.
As the Navy is planning its future carrier fleet size, it also faces math problems with its air wings. The service customarily had one more carrier air wing than its total number of carriers before deciding it did not need to keep that many aircraft. The Navy currently has nine air wings to serve on 11 carriers. “That means each air wing is getting worked at max availability,” Clark says.
Not all air wings are populated with enough strike fighters, he notes, and the Navy is not looking to buy more. Current F-35C production is capped by Lockheed Martin’s capacity and issues facing development of new capabilities, such as the Block 4 package. Early Super Hornets are reaching service-life caps, as Boeing’s Block III upgrade process has proven more time-consuming than originally expected, while the Navy wants to end new production.
For now, this means the service has been shuffling aircraft around its squadrons to populate those underway. It is a workable approach for now, but it is not necessarily sustainable, he says.
The Navy plans to address the potential aircraft shortages by leaning heavily into uncrewed aviation. The 2022 Navigation Plan authored by then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday, who has now retired, called for carrier air wings to be 60% uncrewed and 40% crewed. This plan hinges for now on the Boeing MQ-25 Stingray, slated to be the trailblazer for uncrewed carrier-based operations ahead of new programs such as Collaborative Combat Aircraft on which the Navy is working with the Air Force. Those uncrewed “loyal wingman”-type aircraft, which are to fly alongside F-35s and Next-Generation Air Dominance platforms, are expected to begin to be fielded by the end of the decade.